Senator SCULLION (Northern Territory) (5:31 PM) —I normally rise with some excitement to provide a contribution in the debates on matters of public importance—there are only a few moments of shabby pleasure we take in beating up the other side on their complete failure in most programs—but I have to say that today I rise with a feeling of not only disappointment but also some dismay at the extent of the incompetence and mismanagement of the programs more generally affecting our first Australians but particularly in the provision of housing and the SIHIP fiasco in the Northern Territory.
The standard and quantity of houses in Northern Territory communities has been raised in this place as a serious issues for many years. Inadequate housing supply means it is not uncommon for 15 to 20 people to share a dwelling in remote Territory communities, sometimes with non-functioning bathrooms and toilets—and all of the misery that goes with those sorts of circumstances. Many people now in fact choose to live outdoors under sheets of tin or tarpaulins because it is better to live in those conditions than in the sort of squalor that is associated with overcrowding.
Poor housing was raised as a significant factor contributing to child abuse and neglect in the Little children are sacred report released in 2007, and the Howard government decided it was imperative to take a greater role in providing housing in the Northern Territory. The previous government provided new funding of $514 million over four years on top of the existing budget to repair and build housing in remote Northern Territory communities. As I have said countless times in this place, this was an emergency response that was designed to provide immediate relief to our most vulnerable Australians.
When the coalition lost the election in 2007, it was with some relief that we found that Labor had decided to maintain the previous government’s commitment to housing, through the announcement of the Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program, or SIHIP. On 12 April 2008, the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, Jenny Macklin, increased the commitment to $547 million over four years with an additional $100 million to be provided by the Northern Territory government. This $647 million, later increased to $672 million, was to provide: 750 new houses; 230 new houses that would replace houses earmarked for demolition; over 2,500 housing upgrades; essential infrastructure to support those new houses; and improvements to living conditions in those town camps. Work was due to begin in October 2008, meaning that, with the government’s four-year timetable, all work would be completed by the end of 2012.
Unfortunately, the Labor government have failed at every turn to deliver on their promise, which is a monumental tragedy and an insult to the people who continue to suffer in Third World living conditions. Instead of construction being underway by October 2008 the alliance partner has only just been announced and will still need time to commence work. In the meantime, consultations about design and housing requirements began with communities. The amount of time and money allocated to these consultations was unprecedented. The community of Maningrida, for example, received nine visits between March and June 2009, but construction was not scheduled to begin until mid-2010. Later it was revealed more than $45 million was spent on consultations, administration and other bureaucratic expenses before a single house slab was poured, a single nail driven or a single brick laid. The reality was that not a single house had been completed by February 2009, despite money having been available since 2007 as part of the Northern Territory Emergency Response.
In July 2009 it was revealed that New South Wales Labor Senator Ursula Stephens had written to Minister Macklin a year earlier, in 2008, warning that no houses would be built under the program until 2011. The government immediately denied that there were any problems with SIHIP other than delays in implementing such a large program. The cover-ups continued, with the Northern Territory minister responsible for the delivery of SIHIP reported in the media on 7 July 2009 as saying that the government had met every deadline for this project—an amazing statement given that it had already been conceded that the program start date had been delayed.
The same month, NT government ministers Anderson and Hampton received a briefing on the program’s status. Ms Anderson alleged that less than 30 per cent of the $672 million budget would actually be used to build and refurbish houses. The NT minister responsible, Rob Knight, described the claim as ‘ludicrous’—and, of course, we can all remember Minister Macklin claiming that the figure was ‘completely wrong’. Both ministers either had absolutely no idea of the status of the program or were deliberately misleading the public. This was confirmed when a review of the program was conducted. Facing growing dissent, the government announced a review of SIHIP on 24 July 2009.
On 17 August 2009, a week before the release of the SIHIP review, the NT minister answered a question in the NT parliament on SIHIP where he said: ‘So they are the facts; work is underway, it is on track, it is a five- year program, and every single house will be built, every refurbishment will be completed, and all those training positions will be filled.’ The next day, on 18 August 2009, SIHIP’s director, Jim Davidson, who gave a briefing to Alison Anderson revealing SIHIP mismanagement, was removed from his position. Free from the constraints of the position, Mr Davidson spoke to the ABC in Darwin. He revealed that the SIHIP budget was only enough to build 300 houses—substantially fewer than the 750 that were promised—meaning that the budget was likely to blow out to over $1 billion. How prophetic that turned out to be.
The government again denied those claims, but in November 2010 it boosted the program’s budget by $456.7 million to a total of $1.1 billion. On 31 August 2009 the review into SIHIP was released. The review found: the program was overly bureaucratic with six layers of oversight; $45.54 million had, in effect, been wasted on inappropriate consultation before construction had commenced; and the promised construction targets could not be met. This meant that, in order to meet construction targets, all vital infrastructure works, including water, sewerage, power and subdivisions would have to be cut from the program’s budget and funded from other sources. The review exposed that all the Labor government’s public assurances that SIHIP was on track, on budget and would deliver what was promised were, in fact, untrue. The government was either totally unaware of the status of its program or deliberately hiding the facts from Australians.
SIHIP had quietly increased to a five-year program—just by media release, of course—and, with a new budget, continued with the government stating that the program was again on track; however, the waste, mismanagement and poor standards continued. The standard of completed renovations was well short of expectations for even the reduced $75,000 budget. Renovations now only include repairs to electrical fittings, bathroom plumbing and fixtures, and supply of a new stainless steel bench instead of a proper kitchen. Houses are not even painted anymore. One house I inspected at Ali Curung after it had been renovated did not have a single cupboard or shelf in the kitchen. That meant there was nowhere to store food or put plates and saucepans, and there was not even a drawer to get cutlery off the floor.
In estimates in October this year, officials revealed that:
… in order to make the limited funding that we have go as far as possible and to make as many houses safe and functional as possible, that functional refurbishment will be the focus for the majority of them.
This statement indicates that the functional maintenance, or ‘fix-and-make-safe’ maintenance, is costing the full $75,000 per house—work that has been achieved in similar communities, which I have also inspected, by qualified tradesmen for around $25,000 per house. The government repeatedly refuses to provide a breakdown of what the alliance partners are paid, effectively hiding this from scrutiny. Worse still, in November 2010—this very month—the Territory opposition received a briefing on SIHIP from NT officials which indicated that even the target of 2,500 ‘fix-and-make-safe’ renovations could not be achieved due to funding constraints. Where has all the money gone? The government refuses to answer this most important question.
The next issue that must be explained relates to the program’s target of 750 new houses. Northern Territory government officials have revealed that 50 per cent of the houses will have two bedrooms or less, while 10 per cent will only have one bedroom. A stack of one- and two-bedroom boxes is not going to alleviate overcrowding, which is a key objective of SIHIP. One of the worst aspects of SIHIP is the extent of the government’s deception about the mismanagement of expenditure and the time frames of the program. In December 2009, a post-review assessment was commissioned by the Australian government to report against the SIHIP review recommendations. When that was released on 17 March 2009 it was accompanied by a media release that said:
… the changes and recommendations of the 2009 review have been implemented, and have put the program on track to achieve its targets of 750 new houses, 230 rebuilds and 2500 refurbishments …
That is complete rubbish.
What is obvious is that millions of dollars have been spent while Aboriginal people continue to live in overcrowded and substandard housing. The government started with hundreds of millions of dollars and the goodwill of Aboriginal people, and it has squandered both. It is time that a full, open and independent inquiry is instigated to stop the waste and mismanagement that has characterised this program. We can no longer tolerate the monumental incompetence and failure that Minister Macklin has demonstrated in her mismanagement of this program. (Time expired)
Download media release:
101117 Matter of Public Importance – Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program.pdf